Tone the hallmark of Boston bombings coverage

Tone the hallmark of Boston bombings coverageBarricades hindered emergency units getting to the injured at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, IMAGE: John Tlumacki

Can you explain how you became aware this massive news event was unfolding?

Well, the marathon itself we were covering big time.

We were covering it on two websites (www.bostonglobe.com and www.boston.com) and all the TVs in the office were turned to the marathon without sound because at that time of the afternoon the competitive part of the race had long been over and it was the fun part … everyday regular people running and finishing.

I just sort of heard some noise in the newsroom and some gasps, so

I walked out of my office quickly and people were saying something bad is happening: “It sounds like there were some explosions”.

You know this was within 90 seconds of the two explosions and we were trying to react and figure out what was going on in a rapidly moving scene.

Obviously you were in work mode, but were you concerned for the safety of your own family members?

There was small chance my wife was in the vicinity as we live near the finish line of the marathon. I knew she was either travelling from point A to point B that might have taken her nearby or that she might have gone to watch the marathon.

So I started directing coverage – talking to the web site staff – and the minute I could get a breathe, I texted my wife, I emailed her and left a phone message on her mobile basically saying: “Are you okay?; Tell me you are okay; tell me where you are … and wherever you are do not go any place right now.”

Because you have got to remember at that time we knew by then there were explosions and police were evacuating the area and it was a mad scene on site of first responders and regular people trying to attend to the so many people who were wounded.

But it was unclear what exactly was going on … were there bombs?

Were there going to be more bombs going off elsewhere? So my advice to everybody was if you are in a safe place stay indoors.

How did you make contact with staff either covering or competing in the marathon?

You could text, but calls weren’t working on mobiles through most of Boston.

We had people from sport and metro, we had photographers, videographers and sports producers covering various aspects of the marathon from start to finish.

Within the first 10 minutes or so there were no meetings in newsroom, but the likes of me and others going around talking with each department head to ascertain who specifically was covering the marathon and to make sure they connected with them directly: “Let’s get a list and make sure everyone is accounted for and is okay.”

We had people right near the explosion, but fortunately no one was injured.

Boston Bombings

Sydney Corcoran is comforted by a stranger as she lays injured. IMAGE: John Tlumacki, Boston Globe

Can you explain how some your staff showed tremendous courage at the scene?

Steve Silva was at the finish line shooting the race and was shooting at the very moment when the first bomb went off and you hear the boom and see the cloud of smoke wafting up and you hear screams – it’s a pretty famous video now.

And then what you see is Steve with his hand-held camera rushing towards the explosion and you see all these people rushing the other way. That goes on for several minutes and Steve’s audio is pretty frightening.

What you also see in Steve’s video is one of our photographers John Tlumacki. Within two hours his images were being called iconic pictures. He too was right at the finish line when the two explosions went off and you see John at one point in the video running with his equipment and you see him a little bit later on with the first responders pulling the fencing away that separated the spectators from the runners so that police, fire and ambulance could get to the wounded.

(Steve Silva’s raw footage, which has had over 24 million views on You Tube, can be seen at: http://bcove.me/mday1llt)

John went into overdrive and we also had a third person on site, David Abel, who was actually running the race with people he had profiled on the Sunday paper front page – a story about two dwarfs running the marathon. (David Abel describes the scene: http://bcove.me/xpemrb39).

And you know, that’s what the marathon is usually – it’s this happy and celebratory event with people raising money for charities and people achieving their own milestones.

Everybody in Boston knows somebody who is running the race and David happened to be running with the people he had profiled.

Dave had his phone with him … he did what the likes of you and me do, he started working right away.

It was just a horrible scene – people killed and maimed – it is the kind of thing you see in war and not at a marathon.

How much did you rely on social media as a content source?

Not so much actually.

We used social networking – particularly our own Twitter feeds – which we have been doing for quite some time, as a headline news service.

Our reporters and photographers were tweeting and those tweets essentially became breaking news headlines. What we also did (similar to an election coverage) was to pull all those breaking news headlines together into a live blog onto the website’s home pages. It’s ideal when multiple things are happening in multiple places.

But the use of social networking was largely our own staff … we followed other news organisations closely and what they were tweeting.

We got photos and videos from outside people, but we didn’t rely that much on content from the community.

It was vitally important for us to be accurate and to convey the right information and at the right time.

We did not want to broadcast everything that came across socially – we curated everything very carefully.

As you are aware, the Boston bombing tarnished the credibility of some news organisations because of inaccurate content online – can you give me your thoughts about the desire to be first, but the imperative of being right?

We do news, so we want to be first. That is who we all are – so I understand that drive and adrenaline really well.

But accuracy trumps speed, particularly with an event like this.

Sometimes you don’t exactly know what is going on for hours.

For days in fact there was so much uncertainty and fear – so you want to be careful about your tone. You do not want to be breathless, because it is already a scary situation. The community is frightened and you do not want to add to that by mistakes and false coverage.

We only reported what we knew to be true through our own eyes and ears or news sourcing. We used some outside sources like the Associated Press (AP) which is the bible of global news wire reporting, certainly in the United States.

We don’t ever call an election result until AP calls the election.

But I have got to say, I am a little more forgiving than others on some of the mistakes that were made.

I know some people have been bashed for some highly public errors that they tried to retract pretty quickly and some not so quickly.

It is really a moving target and if you look at the corrections column of any reputable newspaper – you know, look at the great New York Times newspaper, every morning it runs five or six corrections and that’s for the newspaper itself.

So the idea of being overly critical of something that is moving so fast in the digital space is harsh, but at the same time one mistake can mess with your reputation.

You have been involved in the coverage of some massive news stories during your career – did you draw on learning from coverage of events like 9/11?

This was the biggest event in my city that I’ve been directly involved with in helping to lead the coverage.

I worked on 9/11, but I was in Europe at the time. I was a piece of that story, we were tangential, but here this was at the heart of the story.

We are the news leader in our city, so it was ours to cover well. In terms of breaking news, we learnt most of our lessons from elections and giant sporting events in terms of how to cover something that is multifaceted, multi-sourced and things coming from a lot of directions.

At times we reminded ourselves to take a deep breath – I often remarked: “Let’s think this through and check everything was verified.”

How intense was the competitiveness among news outlets?

This was something that shook up everybody – so the normal elbows flying didn’t fly at all.

It was a community horrified by what took place – so the journalistic community and the community at large embraced a kind of “we’ll get through this” approach.

About a week plus into this thing we’re having a news meeting and in came these local pizza guys with loads of pizzas that the Chicago Tribune bought.

It sounds so small, but it made us smile so much and it was a week where there weren’t a lot of smiles going around.

A note accompanied the pizza delivery: “We can’t buy you lost sleep, so at least let us pick up lunch.”

Boston Bombings

Police officers with their guns drawn hear the second explosion down the street. IMAGE: John Tlumacki, Boston Globe

Did your connection with local law enforcement provide an advantage?

I am proud our mission is to be the dominant news organisation in greater Boston and I think far and away we are.

So our contacts with local law enforcement exceed anybody else and, because we’re reliable publishers that enabled us to deal directly with them … they have respect for our beat reporters and editors.

But it was a still challenge given the total number of law enforcement agencies involved, particularly once it became a man hunt. So there is no single source of information on a story like this.

How difficult was the decision-making process in terms of allocation of content for online and print?

For the first few days pretty much everything that moved we published digitally.

Frankly, from a competitive standpoint, on a story like this it is hard for anything to hold exclusively overnight.

Keep in mind the bombers weren’t caught until four days later, so the community was scared and unsure, so we felt we needed to be publishing in real time. (The two pressure cooker bombs exploded during Boston Marathon on April 15 and the suspects – brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were fatally shot and arrested respectively – in Watertown on April 19)

Adrenaline generally keeps staff going during major news events, but what did you do in terms of staff welfare?

We did a few things – some we thought about deeply and others because we’re a compassionate organisation.

John Tlumacki who took the amazing pictures for example: He was going to cover an event that was all about fun and celebration and instead he saw dead people and maimed people.

John came back to the building and everyone made a point of saying: “Are you okay?”

John heard that over and over. He told me later that just people asking helped in terms of how he was trying to deal with this emotional time.

We also did formal things. We offered a version of PTSD training to staff and also provided counselling for people wanting to talk about what they had seen or covered.

We had done stuff like that after the Iraq War and Haiti earthquake.

For a couple of days it was non-stop, but then you just had to send people home.

After the first week, we started to rotate people.

With the benefit of hindsight, would you have handled The Boston Globe’s coverage differently?

We made two mistakes in terms of stuff we had to correct or clarify and I would certainly take those back. One was not fully attributing a tweet from CNN, which we fixed within 90 seconds.

We had learned from a source who had been right every single time previously and this source turned out to be wrong about a key piece of information. We should have pressed harder about how this source knew and maybe we would have ended up not publishing.

We had publishing issues for a few hours on the first day – so there are things we’ve done since in terms of technical back up in redundancy and cloud sourcing to ensure it never happens again.

In your opinion, what was the stand out moment of the The Globe’s coverage?

For me, it was how the people at The Globe handled and covered the story with suchpassion, concern, fairness and tone. This, in reality, was just a microcosm of how the cityitself and the Boston area at large handled it.

There was something special how the generosity of spirit after the attack just pervaded the whole community.

Finally, what is the important piece advice you would give fellow editors when covering an event of such magnitude?

Tone.

On all platforms we did really well. It was a breathless event that we covered aggressively and non-stop, but we didn’t have a breathless tone to it.

We were level-headed while all this horror was going on around us and I think that stood us well.

Mr Solomon has since left The Boston Globe and is now the editor-at-large, Bloomberg News.

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